This summer, I’ve been reading Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky. It’s taken me longer than I’d like to admit to finish it, but I finally reached the end! It’s an awesome book full of weird and wonderful characters, containing perhaps the greatest funeral luncheon scene ever written and the best insult this side of Shakespeare: “you trashy Prussian hen’s leg in a crinoline!”
But, more than that, it contains an outline for a pretty awesome dystopian novel:
He dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen. Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible. Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection. All were excited and did not understand one another. Each thought that he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others, beat himself on the breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know how to judge and could not agree what to consider evil and what good; they did not know whom to blame, whom to justify. Men killed each other in a sort of senseless spite. They gathered together in armies against one another, but even on the march the armies would begin attacking each other, the ranks would be broken and the soldiers would fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting and devouring each other. The alarm bell was ringing all day long in the towns; men rushed together, but why they were summoned and who was summoning them no one knew. The most ordinary trades were abandoned, because everyone proposed his own ideas, his own improvements, and they could not agree. The land too was abandoned. Men met in groups, agreed on something, swore to keep together, but at once began on something quite different from what they had proposed. They accused one another, fought and killed each other. There were conflagrations and famine. All men and all things were involved in destruction. The plague spread and moved further and further. Only a few men could be saved in the whole world. They were a pure chosen people, destined to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth, but no one had seen these men, no one had heard their words and their voices.
So there’s another reason to read the classics: you might find the plot of that best-selling commercial thriller you’ve been dying to read nestled within the pages of a book written 150 years ago.
Your views mirror the way I look at it: A 150-year-old novel is as bright and fresh as one written today. So, is there anything new under the sun? Or are people just people no matter what the century?
My “take” on the microbes infecting the populace is that it was a not-too-subtle put down of the “new men” of the time, those who embraced nihilism and had the answer to every social problem. Turgenev’s Fathers and Children was that issue throughout.
I see a lot of that today. Bureaucrats from the local to the federal level believe that living one’s life is a science, and that they have the better way to do it (and everyone should do it their way).
There are probably no “new” stories to tell, and I am in the people are just people, no matter what century we’re talking about (especially if we’re only talking like two hundred years ago), camp. The newness of stories comes from the voice and creative input of the individual author/storyteller, her particular take on what might be a tired tale of love and loss. The real gift an author can give is not a story you’ve never heard before, but something that feels as familiar as your own heartbeat, while at the same time making that familiar thing strange and new to you so you can discover it all over again, like some treasure that’s been hiding in plain sight.
Dostoevsky’s mini-dystopian novel was pretty grim. Not a lot of love or humility in that world. Haven’t read Turgenev, but have it on my list….
Thanks for commenting! 🙂
I see love and humility throughout Dostoevsky’s novels.
Go back and read them again. Sometimes it takes a few times.
Since I commented a few weeks ago, Pope Francis has “come out” as a Dostoevsky fan notwithstanding his (Dostoevsky’s) virulent criticism of the papacy in general and Jesuits in particular. So you and I must be “on to” something.